NUTRITION
July 9, 2008

Salmonella Outbreak Continues; Many Clues But Few Answers

Epidemics and food borne outbreaks are gigantic puzzles until they are traced to their source. The ongoing Salmonella poisonings are no exception.
The nation's current Salmonella outbreak continues to grow. Over 800 cases have been reported in 36 states, with over 300 of these in Texas. The outbreak has not yet been traced to its source. FDA and CDC officials are broadening their investigation to include food items that are commonly eaten with tomatoes. They are also focusing on the food industry's practice of repacking tomatoes as being a possible factor in the outbreak.

"We're broadening the investigation to be sure it encompasses food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes. Something that people find difficult to remember but which is always served with tomatoes."

Epidemics and food borne outbreaks are gigantic puzzles until they are traced to their source. The ongoing Salmonella poisonings are no exception. Their investigation has previously centered on raw, whole tomatoes from Florida or Mexico as the likely source. This is changing, as food items commonly consumed with tomatoes are now being scrutinized as the potential cause of the outbreak. According to Robert Tauxe, CDC's deputy director for food borne diseases, "We're broadening the investigation to be sure it encompasses food items that are commonly consumed with tomatoes. Something that people find difficult to remember but which is always served with tomatoes." This could include items found in tomato salsa for example — such as jalapenos or cilantro.

The focus has been shifting away from tomatoes due to the duration of the outbreak, which began in mid-April. It seems unlikely, if not impossible, that a single tomato crop could be responsible for all the illnesses occurring over this long a time span.

But tomatoes are not yet off the hook. The reason for this is a common industry practice known as "repacking." Dr. David Acheson of the FDA explains: "...[I]f a customer wants a box of small, ripe tomatoes and the supplier does not have a box of small, ripe tomatoes, then they will typically go through multiple boxes and pull out ones that meet the customers' specifications and repack them. It's a very, very common practice. Obviously, this complicates the trace-back." So, tomatoes from different crops grown at different times can end up in the same package.

How should you deal with the outbreak while the experts search for the source? There are a few things you can do. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes with the vine still attached have not come under any FDA or CDC suspicion as being linked to the outbreak. These should be safe to buy. Now that it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, you may be able to eat tomatoes from your own garden or purchase them locally from people you know. And don't forget that tomatoes have not yet been proven to be the source of the salmonella outbreak.
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